The HVADC Cultivator
Farm and Food Funding Accelerator Participant:
Beatrice Berle, Berle Farm
Berle Farm has a two-decades-long history of farming in Rensselaer County’s quiet, bucolic green hills of Hoosick. The farm has a dairy herd of 15 organic cattle grazing on 400 acres of pasture, as well as goats and chickens. They grow open pollinated, saved seed corn, oats, rye and hay, vegetables and fruits, as well as tapping maple syrup, operating with the mantra, “land nourishing people and people nourishing the land.” The energy used for the manufacture of their cheese and yogurt products comes from photovoltaic and solar thermal collectors. Their farmstead artisanal cheese and dairy products are found in prestigious markets and kitchens throughout New England, such as the regionally acclaimed Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Berle Farm’s signature cheese, Berleberg, is raw milk cheese hand-stirred and pressed into 11 lb. wheels. During the aging, the cheese is turned and brushed with sea salt twice a week for 3-18 months. Their yogurt, said owner Beatrice Berle, has only the necessary ingredients: fresh milk and cultures, making it a light-tasting, European-style product with a thin layer of cream on top, and packed in one-quart glass jars. Berle products are all certified organic, and the farm is also certified through the New York Grown & Certified program
Berle has been farming for over 30 years in different iterations of haymaking, renting pastures, milking goats and selling vegetable CSA shares. She ultimately purchased the former Berle Dairy and Angus farm from her family, and after a time realized that had been so caught up in the “lifestyle” of farming that she began to recognize the need to take a step back and focus on creating a sustainable business.
Berle said she had heard about HVADC’s Farm and Food Funding Accelerator (FFFA) from other farmers and her farm customers, “from an intricate system of people trying to make it work—a spider web of beautiful things.” HVADC consultant Brian Zweig, owner of Business Opportunities Management Consulting, also in Rensselaer County, called Berle and asked what was going on with the business, suggesting the FFFA program. “It was a wonderful gift,” said Berle. She was already elbows-deep in the expansion of her business including bottling milk, opening a new farm store, manufacturing and pasteurization of cider, adding employees, adding more cows and increased marketing when she entered the FFFA program.
“I have been defining and redefining and getting my direction straight, and now getting to a better level of organization.” Seeing her business through different lenses and refining those views was her first critical step in the FFFA, she explained, to be able to examine questions such as how to create employment, how to engage, how to implement a Point-Of-Sale system, how to comply with food safety regulations. “How to do it right, and how to do it well,” she said. Berle’s next area of focus, she added, will be funding.
Right now, Berle said she is particularly benefitting from the networking. “[The FFFA program] introduced me to folks at the Green Market in New York City,” she added. “The main bonus is to be in a group of ‘can-do’ people,” she said. “I feel like I have had to overcome that hurdle, [the peers] have helped me through this with the approach of, ‘Let’s find a way or redefine it… Think about what makes sense.’ To have so many supportive people has been unbelievable. So many great resources I would like to take advantage of all day long, but I lack the time.” Berle regretted that she did not have more time to zero in on either the legal or marketing components of the FFFA. “I wish I had access to this resource years ago,” said Berle, “I could have been more professional.”
Berle noted that her FFFA involvement’s top take-away has been the different vantage points of her fellow peers and the program’s consultants. “I have been farming for so long that it’s a great reminder that it’s a business; I have a lot of experience farming, but I needed it to be a business. I have to be able to make a life of it, but whoever buys it when I retire years from now needs to be able to make it a living. My whole goal has been to preserve the land so it can be sustainable for the next owner.”
“The FFFA makes a variety of businesses possible,” said Berle. “It is a push in the right direction for small businesses that give us such a flavorful culture, as opposed to all box stores. This is a very nice direction for small businesses. Since there are so many regulations, this type of program is very useful. This program encourages a lot of positive things; food, land preservation, jobs… all the things you would like to see in a culture. There should be more programs like this, we are lucky to have HVADC in the area.”
HVADC Deputy Director Mary Ann Johnson said she was pleased to know how much Berle has been benefitting from the connections and positive suggestions. “It is important for our partners to be aware that there are different ways to approach their business; maybe a larger-scale change works well for them, maybe it’s a tweak, or maybe they learn they already are on the right course—this is not in terms of right or wrong with naysaying. It is just a matter of if you take this action, these are the possible outcomes,” said Johnson. “Being informed and confident in one’s business decisions is key. Before a farm spends their hard-earned money on capital improvements, it is ideal to have a solid business and development plan in place in which they can have full confidence.”
Plans and building are underway at Berle Farms, at it anticipates opening its on-site farm store this summer. For more information on Berle Farm, please visit their Hudson Valley Bounty listing at: http://hudsonvalleybounty.com/Berle-Farm.
For more information about HVADC’s FFFA program, visit https://www.hvadc.org/farm-food-funding-accelerator.
Photo Source: Jennifer Bock (HVADC), Berle Farm